Safari in Botswana: Just too many elephants for comfort

Botswana's safari industry is booming - and so is the wildlife population, writes Erlend Clouston
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The Independent Travel

In the circumstances, there was something ironic about the slime- coloured liquid glinting in the sugar-encrusted tumbler. You do not expect to receive a cocktail called Surfer's Special when peering into the bed of a very empty river. It was clearly wishful thinking on the part of the barmaid who had engineered the concoction in the tiny hut that overhung the parched plain like the captain's cabin of the Marie Celeste.

In the circumstances, there was something ironic about the slime- coloured liquid glinting in the sugar-encrusted tumbler. You do not expect to receive a cocktail called Surfer's Special when peering into the bed of a very empty river. It was clearly wishful thinking on the part of the barmaid who had engineered the concoction in the tiny hut that overhung the parched plain like the captain's cabin of the Marie Celeste.

Beside her, the safari manager screwed up his roast-beef cheeks and squinted in the direction of the setting sun. "The level in the headwater lagoon went up by a foot in the early part of the year," he declared in a breezy bush-Cheltenham accent. "It's dropping, but the Angola flood might come through any day now."

This was whistling in the wind. Of course, we all dutifully looked west to see if a wall of water was rushing in from the horizon but all we saw were scores of ash-grey camelthorns sprouting from acres of cardboard- coloured grass. The Savuti channel looked just like any other stretch of drought-ridden Africa.

Only this wasn't drought. Neither was it witchcraft, though Modimo, the traditional god of this part of southern Africa, supposedly shows his displeasure by withholding rain. In fact, the culprit is geology. The northern part of Botswana rests on what amounts to a pile of broken crockery. When it reshuffles itself, as it does, irregularly, strange things can happen. The bleached Savuti channel, empty since 1980, is one of them. The drop on its 80-mile run between the northern river systems and the Savuti swamp is extremely fine. A subterranean kinking of the channel bed had stopped the water in its tracks.

We motored slowly upstream, so to speak. One advantage of a dried-up river bed is that it makes a reasonable roadway, flat and well clear of the leafy trees from which leopards might spring on to tourists' shoulders. Carlos the tracker lolled on a seat bolted over the Land Rover's nearside front wing. Officially, he was scouting for game; unofficially he was probably a decoy to buy the paying customers time in the event of a lion attack.

We examined the bristling undergrowth carefully. There is something essentially unhinged about Africa. Rivers run backwards, and so do the frenetic ant- lions. The bat-eared fox leaps seven metres vertically. Elephants commit necrophilia. The Jesus bird walks on water. Sloth-like hippos, we had been warned, can charge at 30mph.

"Warthog over there ... oops, two," cried Kevin as the Land Rover jolted over a rock or a rhinoceros skull. This was a man firmly in his element. He once served as an official birdwatcher for the Israeli air force, alerting pilots to incoming flights of Egyptian geese.

"Kori bustard!" he exclaimed as a streamlined turkey stomped like an arthritic gardener through an arid shrubbery. "Heaviest flying bird in Africa." Given the absence of water, the wildlife was startlingly profuse, with lions, ostriches, hyenas and leopards strolling around. Then we saw why.

The Land Rover shuddered alongside what seemed to be a pigeon loft. "Excuse the mess; the baboons aren't so good with their housekeeping," said Kevin as he bounded up 13 steps into a slippery wooden cavity. We peered from a slit in the planks over a large duckpond, one of five tapped into underground springs by the safari industry. It is an interesting moral issue. On the one hand, ersatz water holes save animals' lives and sustain scores of jobs in the tourist industry; on the other, they are unnatural and therefore wrong. In addition, the concentrated colonies of elephants inflict havoc on the vegetation around the waterholes.

It is a dilemma that confronts the entire country. According to its 1991 elephant management plan, Botswana should have 54,600 of the beasts - more than enough for a country just the size of France - but the national herd has ballooned to 120,000. The consequence has been devastated riverside tree belts, flattened crops and, between 1995 and 1996 alone, seven human deaths. And all because of money. Wildlife lovers bring an annual $270m to Botswana - good going for a territory that is chiefly desert. Understandably, the government has been reluctant to cull the goose that helps to lay the golden egg.

And it is golden, with a sophistication that is almost as surreal as the wildlife. It would certainly amaze the Colonial Office administrators who, in 1894, dismissed North Ngamiland, forerunner of north Botswana and the principal wildlife region, as "a dreadful and distant place". Fifty miles west of Savuti in the Okavango delta, where 11 billion cubic feet of river water splinters the Kalahari emerald, we were decanted from a succession of light aircraft and shallow-draught speedboats on to expensive sets from Robinson Crusoe Goes to Treasure Island: all sculpted aerial boulevards, Zen carpentry and designer thatching draped languorously about virgin jungle. The living quarters at Jau "camp" in the central Okavango had wind chimes the size of beer barrels and enameled Victorian bathtubs you could drown a buffalo in.

"Eet's just like a Tarzan movie," an excited French supermarket baron declared as we nibbled sausages under an ancient baobab tree. Ten years ago the Botswanan government opted for a low-impact, high-cost policy, which means that if you feel like living like a jungle lord, you can, but be prepared to pay for it. A private night at Jau costs pounds 382 per couple.

Not all the money stays in the country. So the government now plans to have every safari operator registered and audited in Botswana, as opposed to Zimbabwe or South Africa. It's a struggle as old as the country itself. Last century, colonists pushing up from the south did their best to bargain the natives out of their land and possessions. In 1849 J H Wilson, a wily trader who later married a chief's daughter, swapped a broken rifle worth (then) 60p for 10 large elephant tusks.

Watching the sun descend through a Bloody Mary as we lounged against the wing of Kevin's Land Rover, it was touching to think of the three Ngamiland chiefs who had come to Britain a century ago to complain to Chamberlain that the bullying British South Africa Company would "fill our country with liquor shops". The fenland palaces hose alcohol into their guests with the liberality of an airport VIP lounge.

Yet the delta does show the healthy side of outside intervention in Botswana's landscape. Drifting in a hollowed-out ski called a mokoro through liquid alleyways of waterlily and papyrus, we toasted a woman called June Kay. Decades ago the wife of a Kenyan ranger badgered South African naturalists into creating an organisation called Owls - the Okavango Wildlife Society. This in turn put pressure on Botswanan politicians who were far-sighted enough to see the economic potential of green tourism. Now 70 per cent of the delta's 15,000 square kilometres is national parkland.

It's as close to Eden as you can hope to get, assuming you can live with Eden's occupants; tiptoeing round lush islands, we were advised to lie down if a buffalo charged or hide behind a termite mound if elephants attacked. Oddly, Ms Kay left to live in Norfolk.

Getting there

Erlend Clouston travelled with Wildlife Worldwide (tel: 020-8667 9158), which offers tailor-made 11-day Botswanan itineraries, from pounds 2,695 per person based on two travelling. Flights (from Heathrow, via Johannesburg), transfers, all meals and drinks, and wildlife viewing are included.

Further information

Botswana Department of Tourism (tel: 020-8400 6113).

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